Telling New Grievers the Truth About Grief

When new widows or widowers ask me about grief, such as how long it took me or when I stopped crying, I never know how much of the truth to tell them. For some people, the idea that grief will be the primary factor in their lives for three to five years before they find some sort of renewal, is a comfort because they know they won’t feel bad forever. For other people, three to five years is an astonishingly long time (which it is, when it comes to grief) and the thought adds to their despair. After the first year, it’s not such a dilemma for me — people have settled into their grief and knowing it will last years more, isn’t such a torment.

Because of my hesitation to tell the whole truth, I’ve gotten into the habit of telling new widows that grief “lasts a long time.” Oddly, when one is on the grief side of those years, it is an immensely long and dreary road, but on this side, the years of grief seem to have been over in an instant, probably because when things don’t seem to change much, when every day seems like every other day, all the emotional memories pile one on top the other like a deck of cards, rather than being laid out on the table so all of it can be seen at once. That sameness is also what gives grief, when one is going through it, a feeling of timelessness, as if we were always grieving and forever after, always would.

But no matter what things feel like, internal changes are being made, and those changes are generally manifested sometime in the fourth year when suddenly, it seems, life seems lighter, more hopeful. (Or it could be we are simply more used to their being gone, because the truth is, one can get used to almost anything, even death and loss and grief.)

Another example of not knowing what to tell is when a friend recently asked me if her going to visit a relative would help. I told her yes, because that is the truth. It’s good to get a respite from the emptiness, even if the effects of that respite don’t linger beyond the visit. What I didn’t tell her, because I didn’t want to ruin her vacation from herself, is the horror of walking into one’s home afterward to find the emptiness waiting to grab hold once more. But she learned the truth when she got home, and oh, my heart goes out to her. It really is a hard thing to deal with — that emptiness, that void, the knowing that for the rest of our lives, we have to live without that one person who gave us a deeper meaning, emotional support, love and companionship.

This same friend asked if the urge to flee would dissipate after she got back from her visit. I said, no. And when she asked how long it would take before that urge disappeared, I told her that everything takes years. It just won’t always be bad. That urge to flee turns into some sort of craving for adventure. And then, even that urge fades away with time.

I never thought “time” was an antidote for grief, since it’s what we do with that time that affects us more than time itself, but time does pass. The void shrinks but never goes away, so that even when we start to lose the memories of living a shared life because of the passing years, we always feel the absence. Do people need to know they will always feel the absence? At the beginning, it’s a burden, but as the years pass, that same void becomes a comfort, a way of keeping the memory even when the memory is gone.

Another lesser reason I hesitate is that the pattern of grief that so many of us deal with isn’t universal. In rare instances widows don’t fall into the black hole of grief but are able to go on, after a few months, as if nothing had happened.

But most of us have to wait until grief is finished with us.

And that takes longer than anyone wants to contemplate. Even ten, fifteen, twenty years later, something will happen (a daughter’s wedding, a grandchild’s birth, a debilitating illness) and grief, as fresh and as agonizing as the day our loved one died, will return.

What I try to emphasize more than anything is that no matter what people feel, no matter how long it takes, it’s normal. In the end, that’s more important that the specifics, because one thing that most new widows and widowers have in common is the feeling they are crazy when their bodies and minds go into overdrive as they try to process the death of the loved one and loss from their life. Death is the great unknowable, and having to confront that unknown as well as dealing with grief puts an unbelievable stress on the body.

People do need to know about that stress so they can do whatever is necessary to combat the stress. In my case, it was long rambling walks. In other cases, it’s sleeping for long hours or reading or keeping a grief journal or even talking to the deceased. It’s all about getting through the days, the weeks, the months, the years until a renewed interest in life asserts itself.

And it will. That I can tell you for sure.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

9 Responses to “Telling New Grievers the Truth About Grief”

  1. Judy Galyon Says:

    Good blog!! Thanks/

  2. Uthayanan Says:

    Pat,
    Like always very well written. Now I am two years and six months without her voice.
    My heart suffer always the same. To cope with the psychological trauma I try to make an approach to internalize her love fully intact in my heart to live and survive. At the moment the only way I can honor my mourning. I am going to write a detail letter directly to you with some personal details with my grief.

  3. Estragon Says:

    Speaking only for myself, I think hearing the truth of what others have experienced is helpful (though, as you put it, does add to the despair). Hearing the second year can be worse was (and still is) discouraging.

    At nearly 8 months out, I’m crawling out of the black hole. Life is going on (covid style) whether I like it or not. Life won’t go on as if nothing happened, but it will go on. Having decided not to voluntarily follow my wife into whatever happens after life, my only choice is to decide how to live whatever is left of it as best I can.

    The thought of falling back into that black hole and being such a mess again is really frightening. I hope fore-warned is fore-armed, so if it happens I’ll be better able to cope.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I don’t think you will ever be such a mess again. As time goes on, the grief upsurges do get shorter, and after that, they get less intense. I think it helps knowing that such upsurges are normal and that they too will pass. The calm times also increase.

      If you do have any upsurges that are too hard to take, you can always write to me here (sometimes writing helps) or you can find out what I (and others) were feeling around that same time, by checking out the appropriate blogs in my grief archives.

      The death of spouse, life mate, soul mate is incredibly hard. You will find a way to live whatever is left of your life. You might not recognize yourself when that time comes, but I promise, you will get there. The hardest part, always, is deciding not to follow our loved ones.

  4. Joe Says:

    This was interesting to read as I approach the halfway point to the start of Year Four– a wordy way of saying 3.5 years have passed. I believe I stumbled on your blog after doing a web search for the terms grief + second year, and I also believe it was you who mentioned that the 18th month (one and a half years) seems to be a major milestone for some grievers. It certainly started to feel real, final and undeniable at that point. I remember the long solitary days that summer rather vividly. I’m not sure how I got through them or where the time went. These days I feel a little like a piece of jetsam that has floated down a river and is a long way from where it started, but periodically gets caught up in eddies and goes nowhere, or gets hung up on a branch or a stone for some time. Eventually it breaks free and floats further downstream, periodically getting stuck or idling in some backwater, and so the cycle repeats.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Three and a half years is when, for the first time after doing something fun or new, I felt a ripple into the rest of my life. Before that, if I went to a museum or some such, it would hold my interest and bring me a moment of peace, and as soon as I left the museum, I was right back where I started. If it weren’t for so many grievers also feeling a difference during that three to five year time, I’d chalk my “renewal” up to starting to take dance classes. But then, my interest in taking classes might have stemmed from that whole renewal thing.

      But that feeling of being jetsam lasted way longer — it’s just that dancing gave me something to hold on to for a while.

      • Joe Says:

        That makes perfect sense. I started taking t’ai chi classes about 18 months ago, and although we’re relegated to Zoom classes now, I am still interested in it. I’ve just regressed a bit since there’s no one present to correct my posture and that’s really hard to do over video. I also didn’t practice for awhile there, because the quarantine was so demoralizing I thought “why bother?” Kinda regret that but there it is.


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